At the end of each Storm Tour concert, headliner Aceyalone, Miami natives ¡Mayday! and Wrekonize, and the rest of the backpacker road show's roster take the stage and freestyle.
"All the artists come onstage and we have a big jam session," says ¡Mayday!'s MC Bernbiz. "It's a good vibe."
Founded by Mike Merriman of Airport Management and Jason Medeiros of the Procussions, the Storm Tour is an annual event showcasing conscious hip-hop artists throughout the nation in an attempt to garner support for what Aceyalone calls an "underground, progressive arts movement." Aceyalone joined this year's tour, which includes Ugly Duckling, the Procussions, and Diverse, in addition to ¡Mayday! and Wrekonize, shortly after finishing a tour in Europe promoting his latest disc, Magnificent City. A collaboration with producer RJD2, the album is Aceyalone's sixth as a solo artist. Beginning in the Nineties as a member of the influential Freestyle Fellowship, Aceyalone grew popular for his conceptual work. He became an indie icon in 1994 after solidifying what began as a small open-mike night at a venue in Los Angeles into the workshop/record label Project Blowed. Helping launch the careers of MCs C.V.E., Ellay Khule, Busdriver, and Pigeon John, Project Blowed has inspired significant growth within the movement.
"I've seen the population of what we do increase tenfold," Aceyalone says. "I've seen a lot of progression."
Freestyling at each show's end was originally Aceyalone's idea, one of the many he has shared with some of the less experienced musicians accompanying him on tour.
"He's taught us like mad shit," Bernbiz says of Aceyalone, an idol he had growing up before getting with keyboardist Plex and creating ¡Mayday! in 2004. "He's got a lot of good stories and a lot of good stuff to tell."
High school buddies, Plex and Bernbiz didn't know they could make catchy music together until Plex moved in with Bernbiz two years ago. They recorded the single "Quicksand," which caught the attention of Southbeat Records and soon landed them a record deal.
"Everyone was really, really feeling ['Quicksand']," says Bernbiz. "We got signed off of just two songs." Though great for their careers, the sudden success caused some stress, because the duo had to quickly agree on a signature sound for their LP, due out this September.
"We had to decide what the hell we were going to sound like for an album only two songs in," says Bernbiz.
Part of that decision-making process included Plex's learning how to play the keyboard and read music, and Bernbiz's determining which instruments meshed with their style.
"It was a lot of grabbing instruments and seeing how they sounded on the tracks," says Bernbiz. "We really stepped it up."
Yet the recording contract seems slightly easier to accept when compared with ¡Mayday!'s most recent feat: having its video for "Groundhog Day," recorded with Cee-Lo Green and DJ Craze, watched by more than two million viewers on YouTube.com.
"I never expected people to use the term overnight success when it came to ¡Mayday!" says Bernbiz. "We've always been a critic's darling, so I expected it to be a slow ride."
One element of the group's music that Bernbiz believes contributed to its mainstream acceptance is its versatility juxtaposing musical extremes like rock, rap, jazz, and everything else.
"Everyone nowadays likes everything," says Bernbiz. "I think our music reflects that."
Perhaps a more important aspect of ¡Mayday!'s music, however, is the duo's honesty in making what they want to make.
"Us, we're like: Fuck rules just do it, whatever sounds good and feels good," says Bernbiz. "It takes a certain maturity to be able to reach that."
That maturity seems to run rampant throughout this year's Storm Tour lineup.
"I think it's really important to just express myself honestly in a way I feel is right," says Aceyalone. "I don't want to be put in a box ever."
Having experimented with a variety of sounds over the course of his long career, Aceyalone believes he has developed a pretty good idea of how people will react to his music.
"People who like it, you like one thing, and we meet on a common ground with my artistry and your mind," he says. "Sometimes we travel on a common path, and sometimes our paths just cross."
More easily comprehensible, however, is his understanding of what people expect from live performances.
"A live show is like a video; you come see it live, you got a better chance of feeling us," says Aceyalone.
This kind of perception is new to artists like Wrekonize, who, though experienced in freestyling, still acknowledges his inexperience when it comes to live shows. "It's my first serious, major tour," says Wrekonize. "Acey would freestyle just to do it, and it sparked interest in me."
At first Wrekonize shied away from freestyling on the Storm Tour, but he certainly has not in the past. Born in London, Wrekonize moved to Miami when he was five years old. By the time he was in his teens, he was developing his quick-thinking rhyming abilities, performing and winning local MC battles. In 2002 he beat 300 MCs to win radio station 103.5 The Beat's spot in MTV's MC Battle of Champions. After winning MTV's MC Battle II: The Takeover in Times Square and advancing to Battle: New Year's Eve, Wrekonize went on to claim the title of champion at his last MTV contest in 2003. Since then, he has opened for artists including G-Unit, Mos Def, and the Roots, and has released an EP titled The Overdue Mixtape. The music on his full-length debut, dropping this August, is what Wrekonize has been using for his sets on the Storm Tour, though he's been manipulating the songs a bit to boost their live sound.
"I worked around some of my favorite verses from the album," he says. "It's a good taste and example of what the album's going to sound like."
According to Wrekonize, the new album comprises music very different from that of his freestyling days.
"I tried to make it a journey," he says. "It wasn't just about rocking the mike."
After garnering fans from the MC battles, Wrekonize worried he'd be pigeonholed into the category, and his debut signifies his intentional separation from his past.
"A lot of my album kind of just came out a little more laid-back," he says. "I didn't want it to be just one big freestyle."
Wrekonize's anxiety over freestyling came as a result of a more significant fear of being seen as one of the many rappers who he thinks take themselves too seriously.
"When we're up there doing the jam, everyone's just rocking with the beat," he explains. "We're just trying to get past that whole image thing and remind people it's just entertainment. We're trying to have fun."
He is the first to admit the tour has been educational for him.
"You can see what people like, what people don't like," he says. "It's like a big suggestion card collecting around the country."
And though some of the groups on the Storm Tour's roster appear to be in the learning process, it doesn't change the fact they're still able to put on an impressive show.
"By chance it was a pretty cool lineup," Aceyalone says about the acts he has been touring with. "I'm liking what I'm hearing."
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